The Portland Board of Education is poised to enter the debate over whether noncitizens who are legally present in the United States should be allowed to vote in municipal elections.

The school board will consider a resolution Tuesday in support of a proposal from Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Councilor Pious Ali to allow noncitizens, such as refugees and asylum seekers, to vote in local elections, including school budget referendums as well as school board and City Council races. People who are in the country illegally would still be barred from voting.

The board is fast-tracking the resolution ahead of the council’s Aug. 13 decision whether to send the charter amendment to voters this fall. Voters would have to approve the measure before voting rights can be extended.

Even then, the issue may end up in court, since a representative of Gov. Paul LePage has said such an action would violate state law and others believe state legislation is needed.

Although the resolution only supports putting the measure to voters, board Chairman Anna Trevorrow said the proposal itself has broad support among the board.

“Our resolution is supporting getting the issue out to the voters, but I think there is an implied support for the issue as well,” Trevorrow said last week.


Noncitizens, such as refugees and asylum seekers, are not allowed to vote in federal elections, but they can vote on local issues in a handful of U.S. cities. The idea has been rejected before in Portland and statewide. But earlier this year, Portland officials made noncitizens with federal work authorization eligible for its police force.

After previous Portland-led efforts failed in 2009 and 2010, Strimling put the issue back on Portland’s radar during his 2017 State of the City address, but he said the current effort is being led by Ali, an immigrant from Ghana.

Ali, who immigrated to the U.S. in 2000, said it took him eight years to become a U.S. citizen. All the while, he was unable to vote for school board members who were establishing policies that affected his kids, or city councilors who were setting policies affecting himself and other immigrants.

Since then, Ali has been elected to both the school board and the City Council. He is credited with being the first Muslim elected to office in Maine.

“It’s something that I cared about long before I got elected,” Ali said of extending voting rights to legally present noncitizens. “Having a vote is making sure that everybody who lives here participates in the decision-making.”

According to Portland Public Schools, Maine’s largest and most diverse district, a third of the city’s students come from homes where English is not the only language spoken and 25 percent of Portland’s students are English language learners.


While those statistics don’t necessarily speak to immigration status, school officials say a “significant number” of those students have parents who cannot vote. Allowing them to do so would advance the district’s family engagement policy aimed at including non-English-speaking families in district activities, they say.

Trevorrow was part of the unsuccessful effort in 2010 to extend voting rights to noncitizens in Portland. The measure was defeated by 1,200 votes, with 48 percent of voters casting ballots in support of it.

Trevorrow is hoping Portland voters have evolved in their thinking, although she believes many residents still consider voting a right that comes with being a U.S. citizen. She expects a more organized campaign this time around, should the proposal make it to the ballot.

“The campaign only really gained steam towards the end of the election season,” she said of the 2010 effort. “There was a feeling coming out of that, if we had started earlier and gained more momentum, things could have moved forward in a different direction because it was so close.”

The local referendum was launched through a citizen initiative after the Maine Legislature killed a similar proposal statewide the prior year.

At the time, Attorney General Janet Mills told a subcommittee that the proposal would not violate the Maine Constitution. But Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap cautioned that local clerks would have to maintain separate voter rolls for citizens and noncitizens.


The city’s current legal staff has not offered an opinion about the proposal’s legality and the city clerk is awaiting information from the Secretary of State’s Office before commenting on how to determine legal status and any administrative burdens the proposal may add.

Currently, legally present noncitizens are allowed to vote in local elections in 10 cities and townships in Maryland, as well as San Francisco and Chicago, Strimling and Ali said in a memo to councilors.

Allowing noncitizens to vote is not unprecedented in the U.S., according to Ronald Hayduk, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University and author of “Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting in the U.S.”

Hayduk has said that immigrants were allowed to vote in local, state and, in some cases, federal elections in 40 states until the 1920s, when waves of immigrants prompted those states to tighten voting rules.

Ali pushed back against the notion that allowing noncitizens to vote in municipal elections would remove an incentive for immigrants to become citizens. He noted that citizenship brings additional benefits, not least of which is the ability to vote in state and national elections.

“Ninety-nine percent of immigrants who live in this country – their goal is to be an American citizen,” he said. “Allowing everybody to vote actually strengthens our democracy, it doesn’t weaken it.”


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